Thursday 12 October 2023

I won’t be around in 2050

Professor Bill McGuire of UCL is the go-to expert for discussion of volcanoes and earthquakes and the likelihood of their adverse effects. However, he has wider interests and has published a book entitled Hothouse Earth: An Inhabitant’s Guide (that I have not read) that formed the basis of an article by Eleanor Peake that appeared in the i newspaper (see above). Several sections of the article are worth quoting: 

In 27 years, society as we know it will have collapsed. Food will be extremely limited. Lawlessness will have taken over the land. Gangs will roam the countryside scavenging for resources like food, water and fuel. This breakdown won’t be sudden. It will happen over a period of months. It might even have already begun.. 

..[McGuire} is expecting, and preparing for, widespread riots by 2050. The riots will begin, he says, as they have throughout history, when we run out of food.. 

..“If we are going to see the collapse of society and the economy, then it’s going to be unbelievably hard for everyone, it’s going to be a Wild West,” he says. “If society collapses, there will be nobody to keep on top of the water supply, nobody to stop gangs roaming the countryside.”.. 

..”If we are to have any chance of survival, we need to co-operate; I think that’s absolutely critical.” 

That is a very bleak view, but one that is believable - so, how do we achieve co-operation? No-one wants the catastrophe of 2050 predicted by McGuire, and the solution lies with us turning our backs on the comfort, complacency and economic growth that we favour in the developed countries and that is an increasing feature of some developing economies. How can this be achieved? 

In the Gettysburg address of 1863, Lincoln lauded “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and this strikes me as being a good basis for organising our societies. Top-down democracies now appear to be based on gaining votes among the electorate rather than focussing on governance, especially where that needs to be long-term. Unfortunately, the challenges facing us, the ones that McGuire is highlighting, are based on much longer periods of time than the duration of elected parliaments. Solutions also require changes in the way that most international economies function, with the power of “markets” dictating everything. Add to this our seeming desire for a steadily increasing standard of living and one can see why we have the current approaches of politicians, based on what Greta Thunberg so admirably describes as “blah, blah, blah”. Of course, in common with many other voters (almost all?), I am a hypocrite in realising that global climate change provides severe challenges down the line, yet my lifestyle is based on the comfort and complacency I mentioned earlier. However, I would like to change the system to be more like Lincoln’s ideal, as this would be helpful in the long term - but how is this to be achieved? Firstly, one has to overcome top-down approaches and how is that to be done when we have a well-established political class, political parties, and a complex media network to propagate their views. A first move towards democracy would be achieved by having the choice “none of the above” on ballot papers, as we do in many surveys. Imagine! 

Another fundamental in looking at the future, and this is one that McGuire alludes to, is our need to understand that humans are part of a much wider living system and that we are as dependent on all the parts of the living planet as we are on each other. We haven’t moved from the Biblical standpoint that the environment is ours to exploit and there are many who feel that the negative consequences of our exploitation will be reduced by the implementation scientific discoveries, both now and in the future. Good for the optimists that have that view, but it does point again to an attitude that we are able to control matters and we clearly cannot. 

If we were less anthropocentric, and had more respect for the wonders of the natural world, we could shape new ways of integrative thinking. Coupled with a bottom-up approach to democracy, we could transform the future for all citizens, but will it be allowed to happen by those currently holding political and economic power? No. That’s a sad fact, but those who do respect natural history (and, incidentally, those who believe that good manners and mutual respect are among the highest human achievements) are among our most valued citizens. If their approaches spread, we may get closer to a real democratic system like that admired by Lincoln who wished that government of the people, by the people, for the people” should not “perish from the earth”. Well it has done, hasn’t it?

Monday 28 August 2023

Dr Dryasdust, Sir Walter Scott and Philip Henry Gosse


Writers of historical novels face the challenge of maintaining accuracy when describing events, while introducing narrative that is a product of their imagination. Sir Walter Scott (above, in a portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn) met this head-on and addressed it in an Introductory Epistle to Ivanhoe where, writing to the imaginary Rev Dr Dryasdust in the person of Laurence Templeton, he has this to say [1]: 

The painter must introduce no ornament inconsistent with the climate or country of his landscape; he must not plant cypress trees upon Inch-Merrin, or Scottish firs among the ruins of Persepolis; and the author lies under a corresponding restraint. However far he may venture in a more full detail of passions and feelings, than is to be found in the ancient compositions which he imitates, he must introduce nothing inconsistent with the manners of the age; his knights, squires, grooms, and yeomen, may be more fully drawn than in the hard, dry delineations of an ancient illuminated manuscript, but the character and costume of the age must remain inviolate; they must be the same figures, drawn by a better pencil, or, to speak more modestly, executed in an age when the principles of art were better understood. His language must not be exclusively obsolete and unintelligible; but he should admit, if possible, no word or turn of phraseology betraying an origin directly modern. It is one thing to make use of the language and sentiments which are common to ourselves and our forefathers, and it is another to invest them with the sentiments and dialect exclusively proper to their descendants. 

I am conscious that I shall be found still more faulty in the tone of keeping and costume, by those who may be disposed rigidly to examine my Tale, with reference to the manners of the exact period in which my actors flourished: It may be, that I have introduced little which can positively be termed modern; but, on the other hand, it is extremely probable that I may have confused the manners of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriated to a period either considerably earlier, or a good deal later than that era. It is my comfort, that errors of this kind will escape the general class of readers. 

In the Epistle, he attacks the repulsive dryness of mere antiquity”, but also states the importance of making history interesting to a wide readership, while maintaining much detail accuracy. Writers of historical novels are likely to face criticisms from academic historians who have a knowledge of detail that is “dry” (thus Dr Dryasdust) and, even if these historians imagine the behaviour of key characters, they do not promote it with dialogue or other supposed interactions. 

It is interesting that the renowned natural historian Philip Henry Gosse (above) also used a Dr Dryasdust in the Preface to “The Romance of Natural History”, writing [2]: 

There are more ways than one of studying natural history. There is Dr Dryasdust’s way; which consists of mere accuracy of definition and differentiation; statistics as harsh and dry as the skins and bones in the museum where it is studied. There is the field-observer’s way; the careful and conscientious accumulation and record of facts bearing on the life-history of the creatures; statistics as fresh and bright as the forest or meadow where they are gathered in the dewy morning. And there is the poet’s way; which looks at nature through a glass peculiarly his own; the aesthetic aspect, which deals, not with statistics, but with the emotions of the human mind,- surprise, wonder, terror, revulsion, admiration, love, desire, and so forth,- which are made energetic by the contemplation of the creatures around him. 

Gosse was very much a natural historian of the second category, while The Romance of Natural History set out to describe his attitude to the third, for he certainly had a poet’s approach in some of his writing. So, where did Gosse get the name Dr Dryasdust? The scientist working with skins and bones bears a close resemblance to an academic historian looking at texts and contemporary material in a library. So, did Gosse base his Dr Dryasdust on the one in the Introductory Epistle to Ivanhoe? We know that Gosse was an avid reader when he lived in Carbonear in Newfoundland as a teenager and Ann Thwaite records [3]: 

..on his very first Sunday in Carbonear, he was so ‘eagerly devouring’ The Fortunes of Nigel that he ‘did not go to meeting’. It was the first time that he had read Scott and it was Mr Elson [his employer, who was also the librarian of the Carbonear Book Society].. ..who had pulled it down from the shelf, recommending the novel to him. 

That Henry Gosse had read Ivanhoe is clear, as he quotes from that novel in Omphalos, his disastrous attempt to explain the potential conflict between the Biblical account of creation and ideas on geological time scales [3,4]. Omphalos was published in 1857 and it is likely that Henry had been familiar with Scott’s novel for thirty years. 

The evidence is thus strong that Henry Gosse based his Dr Dryasdust on the fictional character addressed by Scott. Both authors wanted to popularise their subject and both were likely to be faced with opposition from academic, “pure” circles. It’s a potential conflict that exists today, perhaps even more so. We’ve all seen docudramas and other media that make our blood boil with their use of imagination over fact and it’s unfortunate that sometimes the audience is not aware of the difference. Both Walter Scott and Henry Gosse certainly were. 


[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1860) The Romance of Natural History. London, J. Nisbet and Co. 

[3] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber. 

[4] Roger S. Wotton (2021) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. e-book




Wednesday 12 July 2023

Hedgerows, Constable and Hockney

Devonshire has 53,000 km of hedges and: 

the county has about one fifth of all the species-rich hedges in England. Together they are of international importance, as an historical, cultural, wildlife and landscape resource [1]. 

A typical scene of hedges in Devonshire is shown in the image above, taken by my namesake Robert Wotton [2], but a hedge is not just a hedge – they have a wide variety of structures and full descriptions can be found in the web pages of Devon County Council [3] and the Devon Hedge Group [2]: 

Across the county there are great variations in the structure of hedges and in the trees and shrubs which grow on them, reflecting location, origin, age and management. Tall beech hedges are characteristic of Exmoor and high ground in the Blackdown Hills; stone faced banks distinguish Dartmoor hedges and those of the Atlantic coast; willow is common on the wet clay soils of the Culm Measures between the moors; dogwood, spindle and wayfaring tree grow in hedges on limestone outcrops along the Channel coast; elm characterises the Redlands on either side of the River Exe; massive banks line mile after mile of sunken lanes in the South Hams; and wind-sculpted trees with gorse are distinctive of hedges of exposed coasts and uplands. 

I spent my childhood in South Devon and spent hours walking through country lanes, and along the coast. Tall hedges and hills were very familiar parts of these “rambles” and the closed-in landscape always gave me a sense of security, even when the occasional sheep dog made a determined effort to round me up. Hedgerows, most often those alongside country lanes and paths (like those in the image above from the South Devon AONB web site), were the main source of my pressed flower collection. This is what I wrote about it in Walking with Gosse [4]: 

Anything connected with Nature was a hit with me and I was presented with a chance to show my ability as a naturalist during my final year at Primary School, when Miss Bedford, our class teacher, asked us to produce a pressed flower collection.. ..I soon became absorbed by the task and collected plants on solitary walks through local lanes and woods. After returning home from each foray, plants were identified with the help of books and then each was arranged between sheets of tissue paper that, in turn, were layered between heavy encyclopaedias. After pressing and drying, each flower was placed into a book with blue paper pages and held using thin strips of sticky paper, with the common name of each plant written alongside using white crayon. In a childlike way it was quite artistic (I knew nothing of Wedgwood jasperware pottery at this time, but you can imagine how the collection looked). 

Such an activity would likely be frowned upon today, but I loved it, although I didn’t go beyond thinking about the habits of each plant and how common it was – like all children, I enjoyed finding a rarity. This changed when I was older and was introduced to Max Hooper’s ideas on dating hedges, first promoted (interestingly enough) in the Devon Naturalists Trust Journal [5]. From studies on a large number of hedges, he conceived “Hooper’s Hypothesis” that the age of a hedge (in years) = the number of woody plant species in a 30-yard section x 110 [6]. Armed with this information, natural historians could date their local hedges, although Hooper stressed that it was a general rule and didn’t work for hedges that had their origins more than a thousand years ago. It was also recognised that this “rule of thumb” should be used in conjunction with local historical records. 

I had the pleasure of listening to Max Hooper talk about hedgerows when I was a postgraduate student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Durham. As a natural historian at heart, I enjoyed hearing about his ideas and also the enthusiastic way in which he delivered them. So many of our seminars were given by eminent scientists whose work seemed far away from nature and the environment, something that is even more pronounced fifty years on. He convinced me that being a natural historian was “a good thing” and that way of thinking has influenced much of my teaching. 

Aside from natural history, I’m also fascinated by art and, in the context of this essay, the way that depictions of hedges have been used by painters. John Constable painted the hedgerows of Suffolk as an integral part of compositions – as seen in Fen Lane, East Bergholt of ca. 1817 (see below). We do not have enough detail to date the hedges, but there is a contrast between the “wild” section and the part adjacent to the field on the left. Here, workers are busy, while we look down the lane that disappears round a bend, the track having come into the picture on the lower right side and then passing through a broken gate. The hedges emphasise this perspective and our eye passes to the floodplain of a river and then to a village on the other side of the valley, with its church on the right. Toiling workers, waterways, and churches all feature in many works by Constable and reflect his attitudes, beliefs and approach to Nature. He was conscious of being the son of a wealthy mill owner, was Christian, and knew how to depict landscapes that have been altered by human activity. The composition of Fen Lane, East Bergholt is satisfying and the hedges, together with the lane, draw us in, just as they would do if we encountered this scene in real life. 

Hedges were planted to mark out fields that either had different ownership, or different types of planting or grazing. They thus provide barriers and many English artists have used hedges to emphasise depth, or to partition a landscape into areas of different colour or texture. Of course, this is not just a feature of works by English painters, but I am confining myself to these in this essay. Among contemporary English artists, hedges feature in the recent work of David Hockney and I surmise that his feeling for East Yorkshire is similar to mine for South Devon: there is a sense of nostalgia in his work. In two examples, based on iPad drawings (see below), we observe winding roads with hedges in Spring, but we don’t have enough information to date any of the hedges “painted”. In both, we are reminded of the track shown in Constable’s painting of Fen Lane, yet we have no distant view, so we don’t know our destination. In an earlier watercolour (also shown below), Hockney demonstrates the role played by gaps in hedgerows, allowing us to see distant vistas (and further hedges). They invite us to look beyond limited confines. 

Landscape artists encourage us to look closely at our environment and the way that it changes over time. Hedges are features that may last for hundreds of years, as Max Hooper has shown, and there is much to see in these habitats if we take the rime to look, or do not remove them for our convenience. It’s one of the reasons why collecting blackberries, elderberries and rosehips is such a pleasurable occupation, for the avid collector keeps an eye on hedgerows from early spring through to harvest. It’s great to be so connected to Nature, just as one is when rock-pooling, walking through woods and over hills, and any other activity where the environment, and all it contains, dominates our thoughts. We all need to look outwards from time to time. 




[4] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse e-book 





Friday 5 May 2023

Wood anemones, Edward Elgar and “Windflower”


Wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) are a common feature of mature woodlands in spring and there can be carpets of these pretty plants, with their white flowers and palmate leaves (see above). They grow vegetatively by means of rhizomes and cannot photosynthesise efficiently in shade [1], so the production of leaves and flowers is therefore early in the temperate growing season, before woodland trees come into leaf. The flowers do not produce nectar but are pollinated mainly by insects [1] and that may be aided by the generation of chemical attractants by the plants. As Shirreffs [1] states, the flower “is held erect during [the] day, but closes and droops at night and in bad weather”. This habit has given rise to folklore that the flowers provide resting places for fairies at night [2,3] and their seeming intolerance of windy conditions has resulted in their common name of windflowers, as though they have a human-like sensitivity. It’s a behaviour that appeals to the imagination, especially for those who enjoy walking in woods.

Edward Elgar used Nature as a source of inspiration for his music and he knew many woods in his native Worcestershire, and elsewhere, where wood anemones grew in large numbers. One of the most important people in his life, Alice Stuart-Wortley (later Lady Stuart of Wortley), was named “Windflower” by Elgar and this may have been a reflection of her beauty and sensitivity. A daughter of the painter John Everett Millais, Alice (known as Carrie within the family) married Charles Stuart-Wortley after the death of his first wife, becoming the stepmother to Charles’ daughter, Bice, and the mother of another daughter, Clare. An important bond between Charles and Alice was their love of music and both were competent pianists and would play concertos together in addition to their separate playing. Elgar first met Alice Stuart-Wortley “two years before the Enigma Variations made him famous” [4].

Elgar was fortunate in having the unfailing support of his wife Alice, but he also enjoyed the company of other women, especially when they appreciated his music.  In describing the friendship with Alice Stuart-Wortley, Michael De-la-Noy wrote this [4]: 

..she was five years younger than Elgar, very beautiful, and she is now generally assumed to be “the Soul” enshrined in the Violin Concerto. Safely married, she was typical of the assured, aristocratic and handsome type of woman Elgar was content to place on a pedestal and worship from afar.

The reference to “the Soul” comes from an inscription in Spanish at the head of the concerto, translated as “Here is enshrined the soul of…”. As Michael Kennedy has written of a letter to Alice Stuart-Wortley [5]: 

While composing the Violin Concerto early in 1910 he [Elgar] wrote to her on 27 April: “I have been working hard at the windflower themes – but all stands still until you come and approve!”

In addition to providing inspiration, Alice Stuart-Wortley supported him when he was at his most self-pitying and despondent, and was generous in sending him, and members of his family, gifts. Not only a musical inspiration then, but a true friend.

When reading the letters to Windflower [6], I had a sense that I was intruding on a very private relationship and that made me uncomfortable. Elgar was a great letter writer and we have many of them [7,8 and see above]. Perhaps the most significant recipients were A.J.Jaeger (“Nimrod” of the Enigma Variations), who was his contact at Novello, Frank Schuster (who owned “The Hut”, a sanctuary where Elgar often retreated), and Troyte Griffiths who was a loyal friend from his youth [9] and who, like Windflower, was with him to the end. In some of these letters we see another side of Elgar, with puns and jokey light-heartedness, both characteristics of his child-like humour.

It can be said that Edward Elgar was always child-like in his need to be looked after and supported through his gloomy phases by Alice Elgar, his sister “Pollie” Grafton, and a number of others. It is clear from his comments about his daughter Carice, Windflower’s daughter Clare, and several nieces, that he was himself fond of children and the Windflower letters also show how much he cherished the company of dogs and their obvious devotion to him. Elgar was a very emotional man and that, together with his skill in orchestration, comes through in some of his music. If I’m in a melancholic mood, some pieces by Elgar reduce me to tears and that is especially so of the Violin Concerto with its “Windflower themes”. In that way, Alice Stuart-Wortley was not only an inspiration for Elgar, but the agent of profound feelings in listeners over a hundred years later. I can’t look at wood anemones without thinking of her.


[1] Deirdre A. Shirreffs (1985) Biological Flora of the British Isles: Anemone nemorosa L. Journal of Ecology 73: 1005-1020.



[4] Michael De-la-Noy (1983) Elgar: The Man. London, Allen Lane.

[5] Michael Kennedy (1968) Portrait of Elgar. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[6] Jerrold Northrop Moore (editor) (1989) Edward Elgar: the Windflower Letters. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

[7] Percy M. Young (editor) (1956) Letters of Edward Elgar and Other Writings. London, Geoffrey Bles.

[8] Percy M. Young (editor) (1965) Letters to Nimrod from Edward Elgar. London, Dennis Dobson.






Friday 7 April 2023

Turner, Fish and Birds

Walter Fawkes was both an important patron and a good friend of J M W Turner, and the artist made regular visits to Fawkes’ home, Farnley Hall, from 1808 to 1824 [1], using it as a base for drawing tours of  sites in Yorkshire. Turner also enjoyed the shooting that was offered on the estate and there was also the prospect of fishing, a favourite pastime that allowed him the opportunity to make observations of water bodies and the land surrounding them.

Although best known as a painter of landscapes, in both watercolour and oils, Turner was also fascinated by architecture and the interiors of buildings, so it was natural that he made paintings in, and around, Farnley Hall [1]. Less well known are the watercolours that he made of fish and of birds and it is likely that all of these were made while Turner was staying at the Hall in visits from 1820-1824. Most were used as illustrations for the Farnley Hall Ornithological Collection, now owned by Leeds City Museum, and the subject of a splendid book by David Hill [1, and see above]. A few of the bird paintings were retained by Turner (and are part of the Turner Bequest), although the basis for his decision is not clear.

In the painting of fish (above, upper) we see two tench, a trout and a perch that reflect Turner’s interest in all types of fishing, while a small fish is shown captured by a heron (above, lower). The detail of the bird’s feathers show that this unlikely to have been painted from life, but from a bird that had been shot, possibly to then be stuffed and added to a cabinet, a practice that was very popular at the time [2]. The painting of a teal (below, upper) was obviously from a bird that had been shot – no teal flies with its head at this angle! Painting from life presented Turner with more of a challenge, since examination of the plumage in detail was then much more difficult [1]. An example is that of the goldfinch (below, lower).

These paintings show Turner’s skill as an artist, but they are quite different in feel to the majority of his work. He was less interested in detail, and in portraiture, than in conveying feeling through landscape, whether terrestrial or marine, and getting to the essence of the sublime. It is the large number of paintings that explore this theme that make him so admired, but the animal portraits show us that, as an artist, he could “do it all”.

[1] David Hill (1988) Turner’s Birds Oxford, Phaidon Press



The illustrations of the fish and the teal are from the Turner Bequest

All other illustrations are from the Farnley Hall Ornithological Collection held by Leeds City Museum



Thursday 2 March 2023

Seth Mosley and Natural History

Jim (I never knew his second name) was the Warden of Moor House Field Station during my time there [1] and his duties were to look after the buildings of the Station and to assist in the running of the place. He also supported the research on grouse that was being conducted by a team of researchers using a wonderful black Labrador called Heather, that I loved. When I chatted to Jim, it was clear that he had first-hand, and expert, knowledge of dippers (Cinclus cinclus), but the only people to know about this were those that engaged him in conversation - there were no written records (of which I was aware). It led me to think about the wealth of information held by amateur natural historians and how this knowledge could be made available for a wider audience in the 2020s [2].

I don’t know what sparked Jim’s interest in natural history, but he was proud of being from the area of the Pennines around Moor House and I would imagine that his observations on dippers, and much other wildlife, stemmed from his early years. Perhaps from a parent, or a teacher, or from something that he read, or saw in museums? Fortunately, we know about the background, and interests, of one “working-class naturalist” – Seth Lister Mosley – from an excellent biography by Alan Brooke, a historian and activist from the same part of Yorkshire as Seth [3]. Unlike Jim, Seth influenced a wide audience although, until the publication of Alan Brooke’s book, his work was not well known to contemporary natural historians.

Nature’s Missionary [4] (see above) describes how Seth first became interested in natural history and how his interest developed into museum curation, a newspaper column, ideas on education, and in showing how humans need to be at one with the rest of the natural world. At first, he supported himself and his young family by working as a painter and decorator, but then natural history took over, as he branched out into collecting, illustrating, curating and writing. Seth acknowledged that his interest in plants and animals was nurtured by his father, James Mosley, who was a convicted poacher and an expert with guns, shooting birds that were subsequently stuffed and placed in cases [4]. He was an independent spirit and a secularist, while Seth’s mother was also a secularist, with a good knowledge of plants.

James made a living as a taxidermist at a time when many people, of all social classes, delighted in having display cases of birds – and also of butterflies and moths. It is not known whether he used Charles Waterton’s method of preserving bird skins [5], but mention of arsenic as a curing agent in Nature’s Missionary, together with the use of the term “stuffing”, suggests a more traditional approach. Although the various museums that Seth curated contained many cabinets of birds and insects, he was also keen to rear insects and became expert in identifying various pest species. In time, Seth turned away from the practice of preparing cases of exhibits and was a strong advocate of studying wildlife in its natural habitat, making drawings and notes of what he saw, and that practice formed the basis of a regular newspaper column that made Seth well known, both locally and to a wider readership. “He was always pleased when he was acknowledged by strangers or interest was expressed in his column”. [4]

Seth organised rambles for groups to various places around Huddersfield and he also enjoyed solitary walks. Alan Brooke [4] quotes Seth on the importance to him of this activity: 

I never walk into the country on a bright, sunny day, especially when I am alone and therefore have the opportunity to think as I walk along, but I become filled with happiness that I am anxious to get back to put my thought down on paper..

It’s a feeling that many of us have in walking alone in the countryside and, in this, there is a parallel between Seth and Rousseau [6], although there is no knowing whether Seth was familiar with Rousseau’s writings about walking in Nature or about education, another passion that occupied Seth. He believed that we are all part of Nature and that we must recognise this – a sentiment that is even more important today than it was then, when increasing industrialisation was beginning to have such an adverse effect on the environment. His ideas on conservation mirror those of Charles Waterton of the Walton Hall estate near Wakefield, a short distance from Huddersfield [7]. As Seth said in a quote in Alan Brooke’s book [4]: 

The secret of a happy life is to find out what there is in Nature and make ourselves partners in the concern.

His deep knowledge of the natural world was also important in Seth’s religious development, as he left the secular views of his younger days and became a Methodist, believing that all that he saw reflected God. He was not a literal creationist, but a firm supporter of evolutionary theory and he disliked “the narrow interpretation which the materialistic scientists on the one hand, and narrow minded religionists on the other put upon the Bible account, each refusing to see the question from the other’s point of view.” [4] Quite what he felt about Henry Gosse and his strict adherence to the account in Genesis [8] can be imagined, although he would surely have admired Gosse as a natural historian.

Seth’s religious and mystical views are difficult to pin down but, in addition to conducting Christian Nature Study Mission rambles, he preached in local churches whenever asked and he also brought religious thinking into his newspaper column (he was warned not to bring his missionary work into his job as a museum curator). It is difficult for those with strong religious views to stop themselves from proselytising, but it is easy to forgive this trait in Seth, just as one can with Henry Gosse. Even if the two natural historians would disagree on fundamentals, there is no doubting the importance of religious views to each and their shared wonder of the natural world that shone through in all that they did. 

I’ve no idea what Jim’s religious views were, but that is not important to me as he loved Nature, just like Seth and Henry. We need heroes like these.




[4] Alan Brooke (2022) Nature’s Missionary. Huddersfield, Huddersfield Local History Society


[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau (2011 [in translation by Russell Goulbourne]) Reveries of the Solitary Walker. Oxford, Oxford University Press

[7] Brian Edginton (1996) Charles Waterton: A Biography. Cambridge, The Lutterworth Press.

[8] Roger S Wotton (2020) Walking with Gosse: Natural History and Religious Conflicts. e-book.


I would like to thank Alan Brooke for making me aware of Seth Mosley and the excellent book that tells the in-depth story of a remarkable man.



Thursday 8 December 2022

Robins, Christmas, and longevity

It’s the time of year when we buy, and send, Christmas cards and there is a wide selection to choose from. A common subject is the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), that first appeared on cards in Victorian times and which achieved popularity by association, postmen of the time wearing red coats [1, 2]. Those of us with long memories remember the pleasure that letters from loved ones could provide, with the postman/postwoman as the agent of that pleasure. Their visit was sometimes keenly anticipated.

Robins have been named by UK residents as our favourite bird. They appear to be friendly, approaching close by when we are gardening, and we enjoy the idea that “our” robin comes back each year to maintain the friendship. However, their interest is opportunistic, as they are looking for food that gets turned up, rather than wishing to make contact with us, and the friendly bird we know year on year is not always the same one. Although a robin has been recorded to live for 11 years, most die within a “couple of years” [3], and, for some reason, cards with images of dead robins (and other small birds) were popular in Victorian times (see below for a well-known example).

Robins are unusual in holding of a territory throughout the year, with a male and female sharing a territory during the breeding season [4]. Territories are defended by singing and, if necessary, by fighting, and the scene shown on at least one design of Christmas card is very unlikely, as adult robins in such close proximity would certainly result in challenges that could lead to death of a participant in a fight.

The life of robins set me thinking about longevity in birds of various species and I found two interesting papers on the subject that use data from ringed wild bird populations. Placing rings on birds’ legs enables recorders to determine their range, and the distances that they fly, and, understandably, there are more records for common short-lived birds than for less common long-lived birds [5]. Nevertheless, Lindstedt and Calder showed a positive correlation between longevity and body mass of birds of a wide range of species in North America. They further showed that, on average, captive birds lived longer than wild birds, the latter facing greater challenges in finding food and coping with climatic conditions. The longest-lived wild bird (recorded at 37 years) is an albatross [6], with a captive cockatoo living for 80+ years, although the records for many large wild birds are likely to be eclipsed once we have more ringing returns.

A further study by Sæther [7] confirmed the positive relationship between survival rate and body mass in natural populations of European birds, so it is no surprise that the European robin, being a small bird, is short-lived and produces large numbers of offspring to compensate for this mortality rate: larger birds, on the whole, are likely to produce fewer offspring. Perhaps Victorian Christmas card designers knew more about the mortality of robins than most of us do today?






[5] Stan L. Lindstedt and William A. Calder (1976) Body size and longevity in birds. The Condor 78: 91-94.


[7] Bernt-Erik Sæther (1989) Survival rates in relation to body weight in European birds. Ornis Scandinavica 20: 13-21.